A retired professor of English and Literary Studies, Damian Opata, speaks on the Nigerian education system amid deteriorating educational standards and the possible ways of reviving the sector. In this interview with Linus Aleke, the professor emeritus also urged Nigerians not to blame the judiciary blindly over recent judgements
There is a consensus amongst scholars and critics that the education system in Nigeria is falling at an alarming rate, what in your opinion can be done to arrest this steady decline and bring the standard up to that of Harvard or Oxford?
I am not an education expert, but I am an academic. I retired as a professor of English and my valedictory lecture touched slightly on this issue. So, my concern is not bringing our universities at pal with Harvard or Oxford or whichever, but making it our university and not necessarily Harvard or Oxford. My concern is to have a university system that serves the needs of Nigerians. We call the academic a nomadic profession because education is universal but each country has its own needs. The major problem with our educational system is not only the inadequacies in the system but also the quality of teachers and the manner of recruitment of academics. We have not been able to escape the colonial nature of university education. It is unfortunate, that at this level I am beginning to question myself after retirement, why do I even study the English language? Regrettably, 95 per cent of courses are taught in the English language in Nigeria and when you come to think of it, the content is not necessarily English. The content is material, it can be found in most places, but teaching it, even in the English language adds colouration to it, and makes us very dependent on the English language-based education system. Another thing is the curriculum of the university. Nigerians are aware of the inadequacies now, so, they have made provisions for entrepreneurship and skills development, which is very important. The problem now is that the colonial nature of our education system made it possible for us to have the problems that we are having. I had quarrelled with those in education and engaged them. They said that what we have in Nigeria is informal education. But I said, fine, they can call it whatever they want, but our informal education did not produce unemployment, it did not produce alienation, and did not produce people who lack skills. Our informal education was such that in any environment you are brought up, you could cope with the things in that environment. I grew up in Lejja, and when growing up, I knew how to build houses, I knew how to farm, I knew how to tap palm wine, I of course had multiple skills. What they called informal education made us an integral part of our environment, and there was no reason for you to say that you cannot sustain yourself economically. We had all the skills necessary and we were not alienated from our environment. But the formal education system is the system that first of alienates a citizen first and foremost from his environment, from his language, from his culture, and all manner of things and we are floating. Yes, we have had a lot of scientific development, which is very important for development but, unfortunately, our science was killed by the West. But our people had not tried to emphasise developing our indigenous sciences, except for very few things, we had all the things we needed to survive. Even on the flight, we had ‘dibias,’ who flew but it was not a massive type of thing, it was those who needed it and it was not every person that needed to fly at that time. But ‘dibias,’ could fly and come back, they had that technology but nobody under-studied what they were doing. If people had taken time to look at it, by asking how we can integrate it with modern science because the phenomenon is the same. The act of flying, why can’t we look at the act of flying, by examining the science, the material, and the logic and see whether there was a meeting point? And if there is a meeting point, try to do some sought of integration. So, that had been our major problem. I know I challenged many scientists, there is this thing we call ‘mowa’, it is a small insect that flies with light blinking, I challenged the scientists and told them why can’t our scientists understudy it and see how it can be improved but to my amazement, they laughed at me and told me that this was the basis for laser technology that people had already keyed into that. But I argued that we can still improve on it from our standpoint. If African scientists can help us by putting more rigour into indigenous or decolonising the science that we do, I think it will help us better. Science is there to serve the needs of the people. The imperial science of dominance and domination is a different type of thing altogether in terms of weaponry and all manners of things. Look at what is happening between Israel and Hamas. Israel now has drones that discover and attack tones that is the necessity that they have there. But we have our necessities that need to be solved. I don’t see the wisdom in us in trying to invent drones that attack tunnels, just because Israel does it. Where are the tunnels in Nigeria? Even in imitating, or taking queue in what is happening, it should also be selective. What are the sciences there that we need, not just every type of science? So, I think it is a very serious issue.
What do you think can be done to resurrect this indigenous science in Africa that was killed by the colonial administration?
It is a big problem because the training that we have hard is not in that direction and because it is not in that direction, it is difficult for the scientists to do. The main scientists believe that science is science everywhere and that there is nothing like African science or something but that is a myth, I remember that many years ago, when I was a senior lecturer, there was a conference we had on the sociology of knowledge organized by the sociology and anthropology department, university of Nigeria, Nsukka and I presented a paper on African science, but all the scholars shouted that there was nothing like African science. It is not like today that we have the kind of global information and knowledge that we have. But shortly after that, say about six months after, I was reading something online and I saw Japanese science, Chinese science, and Indian science and since then, I have come to believe that science is cultural. What makes science universal is that when you propound theory or manufacture something here and you sell it, it becomes globalised, and it becomes of use to any person that needs it.
Do you advocate that indigenous language should be used to teach our students in the university?
Yes, if possible, it is better. For instance, they should begin the translation of science books to the Igbo language, and invent new terms or concepts that currently do not exist in the language. That is what other cultures did.
Have you proposed this to the relevant authorities like the South-East Governors Forum?
No, I have not had the opportunity to discuss it in such an expanded forum, but some like Prof Boniface Mbah, have done a lot of studies in the Igbo language, with a special focus on scientific terms. Another scholar, Dr Chibuike Samson Eneje, has started a company that mainstreams the Igbo language. He is targeting 200 million people in three years. He is out to promote Igbo culture and language. He is also planning a massive translation of science books into Igbo language. He believes that the English language destroyed the Igbo language and that the spoken Igbo today is no longer original. He wanted to code the Igbo language so that it would become a universally accepted language and he had employed many engineers and linguists to achieve that. He had spent a lot of money on this new concept.
What is your view on the controversial presidential yacht, which was removed from the supplementary appropriation by the House of Representatives?
I can quickly say two things. To buy a presidential yacht, for a president or governor or whoever, from taxpayers, money is not the best especially in these hard times that we are in. Having said that, I know that the President on his own can afford the presidential yacht. I don’t know if he has one already, but even if he doesn’t have one, he has what it takes to buy one for himself. He doesn’t need to tax the people to get one for himself if he wants it. On the purchase of vehicles for lawmakers, it is a long-standing issue, in terms of patronising locally made products, patriotism dictates that it must patronise indigenous brands to stimulate the economy. The other one, which I don’t know is if they are of the same quality. If they are of the same quality, it is unpatriotic for any government to purchase the same quality, outside the country. But if what they intend to purchase from a foreign company has better security features, then they are justified because safety and survival is the first law of nature. I will only be disturbed if they are of the same quality as what is been assembled here.
What do you think the government can do to reduce the burden occasioned by the subsidy removal?
I think the government has already started reducing the burden on average citizens. They had started paying the stipend to poor households. The government has also distributed palliatives to states, but these were after-effects of the subsidy removal itself. The first thing would have been to place some anchor, before the removal. But now that it has happened, we cannot go back. In terms of hardship, people must go through hardship, after all, for things to get better, it has to get worse first. Subsidy removal was on the agenda of all the presidential candidates, before the election. So, what that means is that it is a necessity, but what generated the controversy is how it was done. Fortunately, the appreciation of subsidy removal has been politicized. Those in different parties with different views are making mounting out of it. In my view, it should not be an opposition thing, except in so far as it is to point out the critical objective facts that concern subsidy removal that need to be amended. If that is the issue, then I don’t have a problem, but to use it as propaganda to attempt to put the government in a negative light is unacceptable. I think subsidy removal has come to stay, but some said that it has not been removed but I don’t know, I don’t have the facts. But I presume that it has been removed if not, why would the government send palliatives to states?
Considering the alleged conflicting judgements emanating from our courts, do you still have confidence in our election jurisprudence?
Well, it is difficult to answer yes or no, because there are some problems. The first problem lies in the capacity of individual lawyers. If you hire a lawyer who is not competent, you should be assured that the way he prosecutes his case will be overruled by the court. Secondly, there are too many interests and the issue of power tussle. It is subject to a lot of temptations, the judges could be tempted, and they are human beings and they could also fall like all of us in different areas in Nigeria. But the critical thing is the colonial nature of our laws, which is derived from English common law. It is a problem because there are lots of ambiguities in it. If you take the controversial section 1342, the one that has to do with 25 per cent in states and FCT. I had always told lawyers before the Supreme Court verdict, that that section is very ambiguous. When we say it is very ambiguous and in language, we talk of terms and references, especially when we want to talk about meaning. I told them that there was no way, Nigeria law could intend that the vote of my younger brother who lives in Abuja would be more important than my own who votes here in Nsukka. My opinion is that all votes are equal and there is no way Abuja can be prioritised as being more important. People should understand that ambiguity is there, and once there is ambiguity, lawyers will feast on it to make their points because lawyers want to win their cases and that is their interest. They are not there to protect the law as it were, they want to impose their interpretation to win their cases. Once there is ambiguity, the issue of intelligence, cleverness, and language use takes the front seat because the person who has the greater capacity to harvest from the ambiguity will carry the day. That is the major problem of our law. I served in a judicial panel in the past and the Chairman of that tribunal, the court does not understand Igbo, and this thing was happening in Igbo land, in the 21st century and they employed interpreters and the interpreters gave the wrong interpretation, and the Chairman who said that the tribunal do not understand Igbo language was correcting the interpreters that he employed. That is the level of hypocrisy in the system. So, many things are wrong with our jurisprudence but the solution lies in decolonising what we are doing so that we can be ourselves. We can learn all the sciences in the world, but unless we decolonise ourselves, we are going nowhere.
Some have criticised the judiciary for hiding under technicalities to free electoral offenders, do you share that sentiment?
Technicalities are part of the law. Nobody employs technicalities that do not exist in law. The provision in the law stipulates that certain things must follow certain procedures. So, we cannot blame technicality when it is part of the law. If technicalities are not there, they will certainly not employ it. That is why I said that the law had a lot of problems. We should not blindly blame the judiciary because when they see that it is a possible interpretation and that something in law has not been followed strictly, it is part of the law. It has not been cleaned from the law.
Are you advocating that the foreign law should be discarded?
No, I am saying that we should look at our indigenous laws and see how we can improve them. It is too late in the day to discard the foreign law. What I am saying is that the ambiguities in the common law, coupled with its technicalities should be removed and then we can marry the remaining with our customary laws. Let us look at another funny thing in the Constitution, when someone wants to take an oath, they will end with ‘So help me God’. That is in contrast with our customary law, which stipulates death if we fail to do what we promise we would do.